PHILADELPHIA — Less than an hour before the 8 p.m. tipoff, Philadelphia 76ers employees are scurrying around the Wells Fargo Center, hoping this Saturday night unfolds as planned.
It’s late March, and the team is handing out Allen Iverson bobblehead dolls. Iverson himself is scheduled to attend, a rare public appearance for the 37-year-old former NBA superstar. He’ll be introduced during a pregame ceremony and then watch the game from Sixers chief executive Adam Aron’s suite. But Iverson isn’t here yet, and a troubling rumor is passing through the arena’s arteries: Iverson has missed his flight.
“He’ll be on time,” Aron says assuredly. “That’s all that matters.”
Three years after Iverson’s last NBA game, the spotlight has shifted from his play to his flaws. His refusal back then to play by society’s rules was seen as an independent player’s quirks, part of the character and the brand, same as his cornrows and tattoos.
Practicing with hangovers added to the legend. Skipping team functions and refusing to obey the league’s dress code was a man who wouldn’t be held down. And embarrassing defenders on the way to the basket, in the NBA and before that at Georgetown, was a nightly statement by the 6-foot, 165-pound guard: If a man, no matter his size, is determined enough, he can get the better of giants.
But Iverson isn’t a basketball player anymore. This is something most everyone but Iverson has accepted, and for years a question worried those closest to him: What happens when the most important part of a man’s identity, the beam supporting the other unstable matter, is no longer there?
For the past three years, as Iverson chased an NBA comeback, his marriage fell apart and much of his fortune – he earned more than $150 million in salary alone during his career – dissolved. Now, those who once ignored past signals have recognized that basketball may have been the only thing holding Iverson’s life together.
“He has hit rock bottom, and he just hasn’t accepted it yet,” says former Philadelphia teammate Roshown McLeod.
A few minutes before 8 o’clock, a black Suburban pulls into the players’ parking lot. At 7:59, the passenger door opens, and Iverson climbs out, shouting profanity. Then he notices Aron, who wraps his arms around Iverson. They walk toward the entrance, Iverson still shouting, for one more night under the lights.
“God gave him this great gift,” says Pat Croce, the former Sixers executive who selected Iverson first overall in the 1996 NBA draft. “But you knew one day, he was going to take it away.”
Iverson stood during a divorce proceeding in Atlanta in 2012 and pulled out his pants pockets. “I don’t even have money for a cheeseburger,” he shouted toward his estranged wife, Tawanna, who then handed him $61.
The scene showed a stark side of a man who had captivated crowds, pushed boundaries, and became one of the NBA’s biggest stars. He did things his way, on his schedule, speaking honestly during news conferences and snubbing the professional sports establishment. Crowds connected with Iverson, who’d succeeded despite physical limitations and mistakes, such as a felony conviction at 18 for his role in a bowling-alley brawl in Hampton, Va., his home town.
“For all of the small people, he gave all those people hope,” said Aaron McKie, a Sixers assistant coach and Iverson’s former teammate.
Years later, word has spread of Iverson’s family troubles and that he is essentially broke. Croce called more than a year ago, leaving a message through Gary Moore, Iverson’s longtime friend and business manager. There was no response.
“I just want to see him,” Croce said. “I don’t even know what he looks like.”
Larry Brown, who coached Iverson in Philadelphia, has called often recently, extending invitations to Dallas. Brown now coaches there, at Southern Methodist University, and two of Iverson’s former Sixers teammates, Eric Snow and George Lynch, are on Brown’s staff. Brown thinks it would be good for Iverson to be around the game and people who still care about him, but Iverson hasn’t visited.
“I worry about him,” Brown said. “A lot.”
McKie and others have texted. Iverson responds sometimes, although days or weeks often pass. Other times, there’s no reply. He keeps to himself, something of a recluse, and declines most interview requests. Last year his eldest daughter, Tiaura, asked to live with her father, according to divorce testimony transcripts. She was concerned about how few people her dad interacts with.
“I just don’t like to see it end this way,” Brown said.
Multiple attempts to reach Iverson for this story were unsuccessful; Moore said Iverson has been told to avoid the spotlight. But more than 600 pages of transcripts and court documents from the divorce proceeding suggest that spurts of questionable behavior during his career weren’t just layers to Iverson’s character. They were warning signs.
“For him to be as successful as he was, he had to be determined and have that little chip on his shoulder and that inner voice telling him, ‘Do it your way, Allen,’ ” Lynch said. “And that’s probably his downfall.”
During Iverson’s prime, teammates accepted Iverson’s unique style, be it hangovers during some practices or his trademark single-arm sleeve. His response to a question in 2002 about missing workouts became iconic: “We’re talking about practice.”
As long as his game was sharp – he was named MVP in 2001 and won four NBA scoring titles – they ignored all else.
Basketball was Iverson’s sanctuary, and he signed huge contracts: a six-year deal in 1999 worth $70.9 million and, four years later, a new agreement worth $76.7 million. Reebok signed him to a huge endorsement deal, including a deferred trust worth more than $30 million, a lump sum he can’t touch until he turns 55.
His play kept his shortcomings in the shadows, but at home, his behavior caused increasing worry. Tawanna testified that her husband was undependable and volatile. Alcohol intensified his flaws, she said, leading him to skip milestone events and stagger through others.
He hadn’t been present for Tiaura’s birth in 1994, and three years later, when Allen Jr. was born – they would call him Deuce – Iverson was “very intoxicated” and unable to drive her to the hospital, Tawanna told the court.
He supported family members and rarely said no to a request for money. McLeod, who occasionally went to the bar with Iverson’s entourage, says his teammate always paid the tab, no matter how much. “He never turned down anybody,” Brown said. “He was there to help everybody. He didn’t think about the future.”
Iverson feuded in 2006 with the Sixers, who removed his likeness from the Wells Fargo Center before trading him to the Denver Nuggets, who later traded him to Detroit. When he became a free agent in ‘09, teams were reluctant to sign him.
Moore said he told Iverson to consider life after basketball. In November 2009, Iverson played in three games with the Memphis Grizzles before being released, and the Sixers brought him back for 25 games. In his final NBA appearance, Feb. 20, 2010, he scored 13 points in a 32-point loss to the Chicago Bulls. His career ended abruptly, without closure.
Said Nuggets Coach George Karl: “Finding his last chapter of his career never happened.”
Iverson kept living as if another contract was imminent, and Tawanna struggled to curb his spending. According to a bank statement submitted in the divorce, the couple’s checking account was overdrawn by more than $23,000 in July 2011. In a single day, $23,255.36 was deducted – at a diamond store, a hat shop, a steakhouse and a hotel.
Tawanna testified that her checks bounced that month when she paid for housing and electricity. She sold jewelry and Tiaura’s car to pay for household expenses, including school clothes and supplies.
Before their home in Denver was foreclosed, Tawanna testified, she sold more jewelry at a pawn shop to pay toward debt. Iverson owed thousands to a Georgia home builder, was hit with tax liens, and his wages were garnished to settle a nearly $860,000 balance with a jeweler.
The public image for years had been of a bad boy tamed by his growing family sitting near the baseline. The truth was that Iverson was often an absentee husband and father.
Tawanna testified that during a 2009 family vacation in Orlando, Iverson spent evenings with a friend while his family made plans without him. On the day they were to fly home, Iverson nursed a hangover in a van, lying on the floor with a foot draped on the seat. While their children saw a movie, Tawanna sat for hours with her husband, afraid if he was left alone the driver would take photographs.
Another time, she said, Iverson left his children alone in a hotel room during a weekend at a water park. Tawanna picked them up at 2 a.m., one of the kids still in her swimsuit, with no sign of Iverson. “I always thought that my kids needed their father,” she’d testify later. “And what I’ve learned is that they don’t need him if he’s going to be that destructive in their lives.”
Iverson kept waiting for NBA teams to call. Last August, Iverson’s son Deuce, now 15, enrolled in a Pennsylvania school and families were invited to group counseling. Tawanna testified that Iverson skipped most of the sessions, including a lunch with his son. During a meeting he did attend, the speaker told the children about success, and how Donald Trump had seized opportunities.
Iverson interrupted, telling them that he had been the man with money and fame. Then he said something Tawanna would remember.
“What are you supposed to do,” she recalled him saying, “when, you know, they don’t want you anymore?”
In February 2012, Moore sent Tawanna an e-mail: “THE BLUEPRINT FOR IVERSON RETURN.”
Iverson played in Turkey and briefly joined a team in China, but he believed he belonged in the NBA. One of Moore’s bullet points stood out: “No more drinking!” He also included an article on how to select an intervention leader. A subsequent e-mail suggested Iverson attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Moore contacted NBA teams, but there was little interest. Besides, Tawanna had filed for divorce, and they spent much of last summer in court. He and Tawanna had been together since they were 16, prom dates and partners through challenges and triumphs.
“I love u,” Iverson wrote to her in a text message submitted in the divorce filing. “I miss your pretty face & I’m sorry! Ppl make mistakes!”
He kept making them. When he met with an investigator to discuss custody of his five children, he “smelled remarkably of alcohol,” according to the investigator’s testimony. Months later, during a scheduled alcohol evaluation, he again arrived with alcohol on his breath.
Iverson didn’t take the witness stand during the divorce hearing or publicly dispute his wife’s claims, and his deposition testimony was sealed. The judge awarded Tawanna sole legal custody, calling Iverson a “hindrance” to his children. He appealed, but it was dismissed last month.
In a statement, released through Moore’s office after the custody ruling, Iverson said the court was biased and its ruling “one-sided.”
A person close to Iverson, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that half of the Reebok trust, established as Iverson’s rainy-day fund, was transferred to Tawanna as part of their divorce settlement. Tawanna’s attorney, John Mayoue, would not comment, and attempts to reach Tawanna for additional comment were unsuccessful.
After everything, Moore said, Iverson loves his children “more than life” and still has feelings for Tawanna.
After the divorce went final in January, Moore restarted the NBA comeback effort. Iverson declined an offer from the Dallas Mavericks’ NBA Development League team, posting on Twitter that “it is not the route for me.”
Moore called Tim Grover, a personal trainer who worked with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Grover said he spoke with Iverson, and they discussed a conditioning program. “Just get the muscles to get firing,” Grover said.
In late March, Grover pulled out of the arrangement, telling Moore he couldn’t dedicate the time for training Iverson.
And that was that. It was over.
Brown called Iverson during the following weeks. The coach is still asked often about him, and when he visits college campuses, he sees players with cornrows and a sleeve on one arm – a generation of influence.
“He deserves a better ending than he’s getting,” Brown said.
Former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. was asked about Iverson last month. He was preparing for a radio broadcast before an NCAA tournament game at Verizon Center.
“What I think about Allen Iverson is in my heart,” Thompson said.
Thompson, who took a chance by offering Iverson a scholarship after the bowling alley incident, is protective of Iverson and wouldn’t be interviewed. But he recommended a discussion with Lorry Michel, Georgetown basketball’s longtime trainer.
She answered her office phone, quick to say that she doesn’t do interviews. But for Iverson, she’d make an exception.
“You go along life,” she said, “and you run into people. And some really intrigue you more, maybe, I don’t know. Or they just treat you differently.”
Michel underwent surgery for a brain tumor in June 2011. Amid the emails and cards was a note from Iverson. It wouldn’t be the last time he checked in. She said he remembers people and their paths; because his was so unlikely, he appreciates how others reached their goals. “He would see people for what they were,” she said.
Earlier this year, Michel contacted Iverson. She’d heard about the divorce and wanted to know how he was doing. Fine, he told her, and she chose to believe him.
Shortly before Michel was inducted Feb. 9 into Georgetown’s Hall of Fame, Iverson asked someone to point a camera at him and ask him about practice. The blurry footage would be sent to Washington and played during the ceremony.
He stood at a lectern, his hat crooked, and mimicked his famous rant.
“We talking about love?” he began. “Not Coach Thompson. Not the baddest guard that ever played at Georgetown. Not Alonzo Mourning. Not Patrick Ewing. Not Dikembe Mutombo?
“I’m supposed to be here talking about Georgetown. But we talking about love. We talking about love? Miss Michel? Oh, we talking about love.”
“I love you. I miss you. Well-deserved congratulations. I love you. I can’t put it in words how much I do love you.”
On that evening in late March, Aron, the Sixers CEO, leads Iverson into the players’ entrance, through the Philadelphia locker room, and into a tunnel.
At 8 p.m., the lights are lowered, and flames blast from tubes. The announcer’s voice booms through the arena’s speakers: “A six-foot guard from Georgetown,” extending the syllables. The crowd erupts.
Iverson stands at midcourt, wearing a throwback Philadelphia Phillies warm-up jacket and dark sunglasses. He smiles and soaks in these seconds, cupping a hand around his ear the way he used to.
This is the closest Iverson will get to an NBA comeback. If the past three years have been this chaotic, what awaits him as he drifts farther from his basketball career – inching toward June 2030, when he’s eligible to receive what’s left of the Reebok money?
Moore has implored the Sixers to hire Iverson as a consultant. Friends and former teammates think he should travel, tell his story – the whole story, not just highlights like the arena’s big screen will show.
“Sometimes we don’t want to accept the fact that with truth comes consequences,” Moore says. “I just don’t think that he ever really grasped the fact that that existed. And maybe he never really accepted that fact because so many times, he didn’t have to.”
A moment later, Iverson retreats backstage and conducts a brief interview with Comcast, the team’s partner station. The reporter asks what’s next.
“I put it in God’s hands,” Iverson says, his voice cracking. “I’ve accomplished a lot in the NBA, and if the road ends here, then it does.”
He continues, looking contemplative, choosing the right words.
“And I’m not bitter about it. I don’t feel no type of way. I just understand that He helped me accomplish a lot of things in the NBA. I’ve done so many things that people thought that I couldn’t do . . .
“But at some point, it comes to an end. And regardless of however it comes — regardless if it’s retirement, injury, or whatever — at some point, it comes to an end.”
Then he smiles.
“Now, if I get a chance to play again,” he says, pausing at the thought, “I would love the opportunity.”